One of the things that really struck me reading and watching Benedict XVI's addresses during his recent visit to the US was how much he was sticking to basic and powerful themes within the Christian message.
As the Vicar of Christ came to walk our soil, I think a lot of people had their own set expectations, or at least hopes, as to what he would say. Some hoped that he would speak extensively about the war in Iraq (to which he in the past said he was opposed) and environmental stewardship. Others hoped he would take the chance to take a number of bishops to the woodshed of their handling of clerical sexual abuse, and to call out the presidents of Catholic colleges for allowing the Catholic foundation of those institutions to attenuate. Others hoped for major changes in interfaith dialog, contraception, married priests, or any of a number of other hot-button issues.
In this sense, many were, I think, seeing Benedict's visit as the infrequent visit of some sort of moral/ecclesiastical magistrate -- during which all the issues which had captured people's concern since the last papal visit would be sorted out.
Instead, the pope stuck close to his theme of "Christ, Our Hope" and emphasized the need for us to keep Christ's message central to our lives in an affluent and secular society; the true nature of freedom as something that requires responsibility and an ordering towards the good; the universality and dignity of human nature; the need for an increased focus on the sacramental life, vocations and religious eduction; etc. On all occasions, Benedict called on us to renew our determination to follow in the steps of Christ, and to see Christ's hope as our goal in all things.
For some, this may have meant that he did not touch on favorite topics as specifically as they might have wished. And yet this back to the basics approach is very much the same as that of Christ, toward whose example Benedict constantly points us. When Christ was confronted by the religious scholar asking what he must do to be saved, He did not dig into the details of social justice, environmental stewardship, proper catechesis and sexual morality. Nor did he point to the established Jewish religious law code of the ten commandments and numerous other religious regulations. Rather, he summed up all religious and moral practice into two commandments: Love God with all your mind, all your heart and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
All the multiplicity of moral codes and social teachings are contained in these two, and in a certain sense more truly so, because in their simplicity they leave little room for us to focus upon the letter rather than the spirit.
Similarly, Benedict focused on the most basic of all possible theological messages, that Christ died for our sins, and rising won for us forgiveness and triumph over death. This startling truth, that Christ died for us and rose from the dead on the third day, is itself so central, so powerful, that it bears constant repetition.
This is not to say that the detailed understandings of theological and moral analysis are "all vanity" or some such nonsense. But there is always a danger of getting so far into tree study that one loses track of the forest. For many of us "Catholic geeks" who real all sorts of gooks and encyclicals and blogs, it's easy to get lost in the details. I recall a while back hearing a recently engaged Catholic woman remark that she was really looking forward to studying NFP in more depth because she wanted to "understand all the details of when you morally can and can't decide to space children." I don't mention this to pick on her or on NFP fandom generally, because it's frankly so unusual for people to care enough about Church teaching to want to make sure they're living by all the details that it should be encouraged. But there is a sense in which this kind of statement suggests that we've lost the point of why we have the "details" in the first place.
Certainly, living in accordance with God's will as preserved and taught by His Church should be of paramount importance in our lives. And as such, we try to tease out moral guidance in order to understand how it applies to the details of our daily lives. And yet in doing so, we fall into the danger of a sort of "lifestyle morality", in which the detailed applications of morality to everyday life (what movies are appropriate to watch, how far is too far, how much is a "just wage", when is it acceptable to space children and when is it "selfish", is "local food" more incarnational, does suburban living create spiritual isolation, public school or parochial or homeschooling) start to become ends to themselves. And when they become ends to themselves, divorced from the most basic moral and theological teachings of the Church, they cease to edify and elevate.
So in focusing on "the basics" I think Benedict achieved two important things: He emphasized the most essentially and compelling aspects of Christian revelation for those without much familiarity with the faith -- opening to them the power of Christ's message; and he reminded those of us who are deep, deep among the trees what this is all about in the first place. Both of these strike me as incredibly important, and an example of Benedict's profound pastoral sense.
Put the Shrove back in Tuesday!
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